Little Wakefield and Wister House designated historic despite La Salle’s protests

Jewelers’ Row wasn’t the only contentious case before the February Historical Commission meeting. Prior to the skirmish over Sansom Street, a series of nominations on La Salle University’s campus were sent to the front.

The La Salle properties under consideration were Wister House / The Mary & Frances Wister Studio—the birthplace of preservationist doyenne Frances Wister–and Little Wakefield, a Quaker mansion built in 1829.  Both were added to the local register.

In each case the university argued against designating the properties because it believes the protections would rob them of the ability to command their own destiny.

“The campus has demands and the university has obligations,” said Carl Primavera, a veteran zoning lawyer who represented La Salle in both cases. “The trustees believe that the ad hoc—we’ll call it chaotic—intervention by private citizenry, although well intentioned, makes it very difficult to exercise intention in master planning.”

Besides the university’s representatives, supporters of the preservation cause were the only other voices heard. Included in that number was La Salle history professor George Boudreau, who testified passionately in support for the nominations.

Boudreau spoke on behalf of the faculty senate, although his personal passion showed through as well.

“I know it may be somewhat unusual to have La Salle’s faculty weighing in on one side and its lawyer on the other,” said Boudreau. “But we’ve all learned a lot this week about the importance of checks and balances in American culture and I think this may be another one of those moments.”

Preservation advocate Arielle Harris wrote the nomination and delivered a short speech that touched on La Salle’s history of demolishing historic buildings absorbed into its campus.

“I would like to state for the record LaSalle’s wanton disregard for historic resources in Germantown since they expanded their campus after 1930,” said Harris.

In a recent essay for Hidden City, Harris ticks off examples including The House of the Good Shepherd Magdalene Home for Colored Girls, The Jewish Foster Home, and the Church of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

Representatives of La Salle argued that the nomination would straightjacket the university. In particular, the school indicated its interest in adding more student housing on campus in the near future.

Undergraduates often make notoriously bad neighbors and many universities have been attempting to keep more of their students on campus to avoid antagonizing surrounding communities. The University of Pennsylvania made an impression with a similar effort under Judith Rodin and in recent years Drexel University made commitments to do the same.

Despite this argument, the Historical Commission voted unanimously to add the Mary & Frances Wister Studio to the historic register.

In the case of Little Wakefield, the university argued that the parcel being nominated is too large and would obstruct their plans for a new gazebo in the vicinity of the building.

The nominator, preservationist Oscar Beisert, isn’t known for backing down. But he did attempt to assuage the university’s fear in this regard.

“The idea that Little Wakefield is not significant is frankly absurd,” said Beisert, in response to the university’s larger contention. But later in the hearing, he stated that he wasn’t wed to the exact size of the parcel.

“This is about trying to protect the house with a slight buffer, not about trying to restrict La Salle from building around it or even next to it,” said Beisert.

One witness in favor of Beisert’s nomination was Penn archivist Jim Duffin, who noted that a famed 1912 architecture book called Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and Its Neighborhood features Little Wakefield. Of the 26 buildings in the city that are featured in the book—and aren’t in the Fairmount Park System—only six remained. Five of those survivors are already on the local register. Little Wakefield was the only exception.

The commission voted unanimously to add the property to the local register as well.

Also added to the register was West Philadelphia’s Monumental Baptist Church, at 4101-05 Ludlow Street, the second oldest African American congregation in Pennsylvania. The current occupants were opposed to the designation—due to concerns about a lack of access to capital for repairs—and the nominators had agreed to table the nomination to allow time.

But the owners, St. James Pentecostal Church, didn’t show up for the meeting and haven’t been in touch with the University City Historical Society, which sponsored the nomination.  Beisert, who wrote the nomination, attempted to describe the complexities of situation to the commission—but they decided to vote to accept the nomination anyway and unanimously added it to the register.

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